Vine-Ripened Summer Tomatoes
Native to South America, tomatoes were cultivated by ancient Aztecs who called them tomatl. When introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the early 16th century, they were quickly adopted by Italians (hello, marinara!), but didn’t become widely popular in the U.S. until the early 20th century. Why? Tomatoes are a relative of poisonous belladonna and deadly nightshade, so folks were understandably nervous. Tomatoes are perfectly safe to eat, but don’t try and use the whole plant as the roots, leaves, and stalk are indeed toxic.
Italians dubbed the tomato pomodoro (golden apple) and Germans called them goldapfel (same), which seems to indicate that the first European tomatoes were yellow. And the French called them pomme d’amour (“love apple”), because, well, the French…
Read on for more fun facts and fresh ideas about tomatoes.
Fruit or Vegetable?
Both, sort of. Technically, tomatoes are fruits because they grow from a flower and contain seeds. But since folks most often cook and eat them like vegetables, Congress taxed them as vegetables. Merchants rebelled—claiming them as fruit to avoid the fees. But in 1893, the Supreme Court ruled them officially vegetables. So there.
Packed with vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, lycopene, and beta carotene, tomatoes may help decrease the risk of heart disease and some cancers. Plus, they’re low in calories (about 35 for a medium tomato) and naturally fat free.
Peak of Season
Seriously, go buy some tomatoes now! There are heaps of ripe, juicy varieties just begging to come home with you. But by the end of summer, the pickings get slim. Don’t wait till January when all you’ll find are some sad, watery tomatoes. (Note: If you’re desperate for a fresh tomato in the off season, go for some greenhouse-grown cherry tomatoes.)
A Rainbow of Colors
Thousands of tomato varieties are grown throughout the world. While most tomatoes you see are red, you can spot them in a range of hues—yellow, orange, green, purple, and striped varieties. Plus, they come in all shapes and sizes—from spherical or oval to pear shaped or even heart shaped (probably not available at your local grocer, but they do exist!)
Heirlooms You Won’t Find in an Antique Store
Yep, they’re oddly shaped and funky looking, but once you discover the intense flavor of heirloom tomatoes, you may never settle for an ordinary roma again. Grown from seeds passed down for at least 50 years (sometimes hundreds)—you know they have to be something special. Eat them raw the way nature intended.
You’ll find the best tomatoes at farmers markets where vendors pluck the fruits (or vegetables!) when they’re perfectly ripe. You’ll likely discover a greater variety than grocery stores offer, and be treated to free samples so you can find your new favorite tomato.
How to Pick ‘Em
Look for tomatoes that are firm, smooth, and plump with a little give when (gently!!) pressed. Avoid any with bruises (from not-so-gentle shoppers, perhaps?) or those heading toward mushy (you’ll know). Finally, ripe tomatoes will have a distinct tomato-y aroma.
Grow Your Own
With 5 to 6 hours of sun a day and some water, tomatoes can grow almost anywhere—even in an apartment windowsill. Cultivating your own crop lets you choose the best-tasting varieties with no worries about their hardiness for shipping and storing. Pick them right off the vine when ripe for the absolute freshest flavor.
Does refrigerating tomatoes ruins the flavor and texture? Cook’s Illustrated recently put that kitchen wisdom to the test and discovered that refrigerating ripe tomatoes doesn’t affect the flavor and prolongs shelf life by five days. Just store any cut tomatoes in airtight containers and bring tomatoes to room temp before enjoying.
Did you get into DIY canning during the pandemic? Tomatoes are ripe for this tasty hobby! Or you could go the simpler route and freeze some. Cut tomatoes into wedges and place in a single layer, skin side down, on a parchment lined baking sheet. Freeze till hard, then transfer to a container or zip-top bag for storage. Great for cooking later. Sandwiches? Not so much.
Fresh and Flavorful
Some of our favorite dishes that showcase fresh tomatoes:
BLT (try adding avocado!)
Fried green tomatoes
Tomato cucumber salad
Pasta with blistered tomatoes
Rotten TomatoesOk, if they’re actually rotten (black spots and liquid leaking out), toss them. But if they’re just looking a little bruised and slightly mushy, they’ll still be great in marinara sauce, salsa, gazpacho, and vinaigrette. Or try slow roasting them, making a tomato galette, or juicing them for a bloody Mary.